Saturday, April 17

Who can bell the cat?

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Risking lives and limbs for the benefit of power players. — AFP file photo

IN one of Aesop’s delightful fables, the mice decided that there was only one way of making them safe from the cat: put a bell on the kitty, so they would hear when she approached. All agreed enthusiastically, but the plan came to nothing. Because, as the youngest mouseling timidly asked, “Who will put the bell on the cat?”

Nobody, that’s who.

The world seems to be in a very similar situation right now. The TV is flooded with scenes of chaos and destruction: anti-military rule protesters getting killed on the streets of Yangon and Mandalay following a military coup d’état on Feb 1.

Early that morning, Myanmar’s military (Tatmadaw) seized power from a democratically-elected government. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party had a landslide victory at the polls and the military-backed party secured only a few seats. The military did not recognise the victors, declaring them to have been fraudulently elected!

That was the justification for the putsch though the political power grabbers have not been able to substantiate their accusation with solid proof of cheating at the polls.

Despite calls from many members of the United Nations for the release of the elected legislators, the generals have not budged at all, though they have promised to hold elections in 12 months’ time.

Roots of the power struggle  

The power struggle in Myanmar has its roots in two main factors: entrenched military rule versus free and fair elections (parliamentary system). This is the bone and the marrow of the quarrel between them and the advocates for a system of government ‘by the people, for the people’.

The military generals are used to enjoying power by the gun since the first coup d’état staged by General Newin against the government of U Nu in 1962. Since then the younger generation of the generals have tenaciously clung to power as if by a heaven-sanctioned right. They must cling to power by any means whatsoever, including the use of the gun. This gun has also been used against the ethnic indigenous tribes of the states in the far north and the Rohingyas in Rakhine state.

When I saw images of killings on the streets of the capital cities in Europe and Latin America, I reacted, rather naively, saying to myself, ‘Ah these are far away from us’ but, when the anti-military protesters are from a country nearer home, I began to get really worried for the safety of my own country, Malaysia.

I’m thinking about the possible fate of the various ethnic peoples – the Karen, the Kachin, the Karenni (Kayah), the Rohingya, the Naga, and many other smaller tribes. These have been fighting for autonomy for their states from the Union of Burma since 1962, and are now joining the anti-military rule protests. I feel most uncomfortable knowing what can happen to vulnerable indigenous peoples during a war.

Dangerous dimension  

My second reaction was no longer naive when by mid-week there were reports of arson. Seven Chinese-owned factories in Yangon were torched and some workers were thrashed.

This is a dangerous dimension of the crisis in Myanmar, compounding the power conflict between the military generals and the pro-democratic leaders of that country. Why? Because China may be dragged into the conflict, unnecessarily. And in the process, the ordinary Chinese living and doing business in the cities and towns, especially in Mandalay, are suffering a collateral damage: effect of the anti-China sentiment.

China’s dilemma

Some political commentators have linked China to the putsch despite China’s claim of neutrality: non-interference in the internal affairs of Myanmar.

Here is a puzzle; let’s solve it together.

While the Chinese are known as the major suppliers of weapons to the Myanmar military as well as to the various armies of the various states in the far north bordering China and India, they have, in the same breath, established a good rapport with the government formed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. A smart move in diplomacy, it must be said. It is in the best interests of China to be friendly with the civilian democratic leaders of Myanmar as well as the military. China has heavily invested in the economy of Myanmar. Protect those interests, they must, at all costs.

This could be a leverage for China in helping to patch up the quarrel between the generals and the leaders of National League for Democracy (NLD). A politically unstable Myanmar is not good for China.

Why would she get involved in this mess? Repeat, as she has a lot of stakes in Myanmar, she has a lot to lose if the anti-China sentiment is exploited by those unfriendly to her.

One major investment of China’s is the construction of an oil pipeline that starts from Kunming right through to the port of Kyaukpyu situated in the Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the route traversing the territories occupied and controlled by a number of anti-military ethnic tribes, but who are China-friendly.

These northern states have been advocating for autonomy from the old Burma and have been fighting the Burmese Army since the country gained independence from Great Britain in 1948. If they can survive after so many long years, there is no hope of their surrendering to the military, dominated by the Burmese, without a fight (‘Agi idup agi ngelaban’, the Iban would say). They are, however, happy to be part of the democratic roadmap – federal democracy – which has been advocated by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party.

Who can talk sense to them all?

In my opinion, China, working with the United Nations, is in a better position to help ease the current impasse in Myanmar. It is in her interest that Myanmar should be ruled by the democratically-elected government in coalition with the military or to help suggest some acceptable peace formula – a win-win solution.

China may have some influence on the tribal leaders too. The northern states are known to be amenable to a ceasefire but the army doesn’t talk to them. The Chinese can talk to the generals on the basis of friend talking to another as well as to Aung San Suu Kyi’s people both in and outside the country. For all we know, there could have been a move in this direction, but I have not been able to get any further information on this speculative move because the internet connection with Myanmar has been bad these few days.

As you can see all sides have vital interests to protect. Myanmar’s fertile land is good for agriculture; its rivers, if dammed up, can produce abundant supply of cheap electricity; its forests contain valuable timber; its mines contain precious stones – jade, rubies. And don’t forget about its poppy fields which produce pure heroin and opium.

So have you ever wondered why everybody wants to have a piece of the pie?

The military regime itself is wealthy, owning businesses, you name them. The generals and their family members have substantial interests in those businesses, sources say. That is why they think that they, and only they, can rule Myanmar for a long time, by politics of the gun and money. The introduction of federal democracy, advocated by NLD, especially the proposal by NLD to do away with the military’s control of parliament along with its share of 25 per cent of the number of parliamentarians, is simply not on the roadmap of the military generals for a united Myanmar. For all these, they will fight even their own people. It’s happening now.

They don’t care about the opinion of the outside world beyond China. So the Chinese generals may be able to persuade the Myanmar’s generals to start talking to Aung San Suu Kyi and her allies. In this sense, China has nothing to gain from the coup d’état of Feb 1, but everything to lose, if Myanmar is disintegrating.

Signs are that the Myanmar people are in for a vicious civil war.

And in the meantime, the mice are still discussing how to put a bell on the cat, and who will do it. We shall see.

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